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North Mindanao villagers fear mines, fresh attacks

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Evacuees fear mines, fresh attacks

By Joel Guinto
INQUIRER.net, Agence France-Presse
First Posted 15:29:00 08/13/2008

MANILA, Philippines — Some 80,000 people displaced by fighting between the military and Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in North Cotabato province have started returning to their homes after the rebels pulled out of villages they had occupied, officials said.

At the same time, military operations started to shift from air and ground strikes to security patrols, to clear the areas abandoned by the MILF of landmines and other explosives left, and to make sure the rebels do not return, Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro Jr. said.

The defense chief, who also chairs the National Disaster Coordinating Council (NDCC), disputed reports a humanitarian crisis was brewing in the south, saying there were enough relief supplies in the evacuation centers.

“I dispute that. It’s a problem, it’s a crisis, but it’s not a humanitarian crisis,” he said in a phone interview from Cotabato City.

Teodoro said the refugees who started returning to their homes were from Libungan, Pigkawayan, and Midsayap towns.

The others, from Aleosan and Pikit, could return to their homes “the day after tomorrow [Friday],” he said

The defense chief inspected evacuation centers in Midsayap, Aleosan, and Pikit towns where, he said, half the estimated 160,000 people displaced by the hostilities remain in evacuation centers or in their relatives’ houses.

An Agence France-Presse report from Aleosan said thousands of villagers are not returning for fear of landmines and new attacks by Moro rebels, officials said Wednesday.

There were no reported encounters between the military and the MILF on Wednesday, Teodoro said.

But he acknowledged that “[the refugees] are afraid to return to their homes. [The fighting] is still fresh I their minds.”

Clearing operations are concentrated in five villages in Aleosan and Pikit to ensure that the MILF, under commander Umbra Kato, have left, he said.

Scores of houses in mainly poor rural villages have been either burned to the ground or looted and crops destroyed by the retreating rebels.

Teodoro said he assured residents that security forces will stay in the formerly occupied villages “for as long as necessary” to prevent the rebels from returning.

He said he received a report of some 100 MILF fighters who tried to sneak back into Dunguan village in Aleosan, but who were repelled by government forces.

In a statement to reporters, the commander of the Armed Forces Eastern Mindanao Command, Major General Armando Cunanan, said all 15 villages seized by the MILF have been cleared.

The MILF vice chairman for political affairs, Ghadzali Jaafar, issued a similar statement, saying: “The areas have been cleared [of troops under] Ameril Umbra [Kato]. Only the MILF who are native to the area were left.”

The hostilities have left two soldiers killed and 12 others wounded, and an estimated 31 MILF fighters killed, said Lieutenant General Cardozo Luna, the Vice Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP).

Luna said the rebels were on the retreat as early as Tuesday, unable to withstand the military offensives that started on Sunday.

“By the looks of it, they cannot withstand the pressure. They can’t withstand the beating. They’re black and blue. They’re escaping,” he said in an earlier interview.

Jaafar said Kato and his men left “the other day” in compliance with the resolution of a ceasefire implementing body, chaired jointly by the government and the MILF, for them to “reposition” their forces.

The military claimed that, as the rebels retreated Tuesday and Wednesday, they planted booby traps and landmines in deserted villages and roads.

The rebels occupied the villages last week after the Supreme Court halted the signing of a memorandum of agreement on ancestral domain (MOA-AD) meant to pave the way for a political settlement to end the MILF’s 30-year struggle for an independent Islamic state in the southern Philippines.

MILF spokesman Eid Kabalu said the movement’s leadership had not sanctioned the occupation of farms, and accused pro-government militiamen of starting the conflict.

“It was the militia that started the fighting…not the MILF,” he said on local radio.

“Addressing the concerns of the displaced remains our top priority,” said Philippine National Police spokesman Chief Superintendent Nicanor Bartolome.

MILF rebels began retreating back into the hills Tuesday after a prolonged military and police offensive involving helicopter gunships and artillery.

Bartolome said the rebels had planted booby traps in farms and villages as they retreated.

He said that government forces were alert against MILF attempts to occupy the highways in North Cotabato or to enter other areas left unprotected.

Bartolome said some of the evacuees had started to check their properties, but were not staying for fear the rebels would return.

“We need food, we need clean water, we can’t bear the hardship of being evicted from our homes. We need to live normal lives again,” said 49-year-old farmer Edilberto Semera, a refugee from Aleosan town.

Abdulwahid Adil, a 39-year-old Muslim farmer, said he could hardly sleep in the makeshift tent his family erected on a roadside.

“Me, my wife and four young children stay there waiting for food assistance but we cannot be in this situation for long,” he said. “It was so cold at night and so hot at daytime, this is how miserable our life has become because of the fighting.”

Despite the hostilities, presidential peace adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. said it government was still pursuing negotiations with the MILF.

“There is no way we can give up on the peace process,” he told an academic forum in Manila, adding “we must pursue peace” despite the violence in North Cotabato.

The 12,000-strong MILF has been fighting for a separate Islamic state in the south of this largely-Christian nation since 1978.

In 2003 it signed a ceasefire with the government to open the way for peace talks. Despite the ceasefire, clashes still occasionally break out between the MILF and government forces.

View article as posted on INQUIRER.net

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Written by joelguinto

WedUTC2008-08-13T08:11:32+00:00UTC08bUTCWed, 13 Aug 2008 08:11:32 +0000 22, 2006 at 12:45 am08

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